President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is all over the place these days, now presenting to the media nasty people who snatch cell phones, later nodding her head vigorously as National Bureau of Investigation Director Reynaldo Wycoco wags an accusing finger at Land Bank cashier Acsa Ramirez (who turned out to be the whistle blower, and not a suspect, in a P203 million tax diversion scam in the Bank’s Binangonan branch).

Speaking before some group or the other later, Mrs. Arroyo announced a get-tough policy on the New People’s Army, and—to the delight of Angelo Reyes and his militarist cohorts—ordered the redeployment of troops now in Basilan and Zamboanga to those parts of Mindanao where the NPA is active.

In the same occasion, by the way, Mrs. Arroyo pledged to go after certain labor unions she claims are too quick to resort to strikes, which, she said, result in factories closing and in people losing their jobs.

That part of her speech was mostly unremarked, however, lost in the resulting furor over what amounted to a declaration of total war against the NPA and its political command, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front. It was, however, no less significant, and a threat meant to make scapegoats out of the militant unions—to make it appear that it’s not the capitalists who pay indecent wages, or the poor performance of the economy, but the workers’ own organizations themselves, that’s driven most Filipinos to the poorhouse.

Still later, when asked whether she would rethink presenting “criminals” to the media in view of Ramirez’ having been wrongfully implicated in the crime she herself reported, Mrs. Arroyo said she would not stop doing so, because, she said, she wanted to publicly humiliate “criminals.”

Mrs. Arroyo of course forgot that the people the agencies we laughingly describe as “law enforcement” had been presenting were suspects in most cases, and in all cases were still to be tried. Apparently, however, she considered that a trifle, just like Ramirez’ being publicly humiliated, and the suffering she and her family had to endure.

Mrs. Arroyo would not be stopped. After that statement, she was off to a speaking engagement in, of all places, the Land Bank. During the Bank’s anniversary celebrations, in her firmest, most petulant and most aggressively defiant manner, Mrs. Arroyo urged everyone, and not just the Bank, to “move on,” and not have an extended run” on the Acsa Ramirez issue, because, she said, only thus can we have “speedy and impartial justice.”

Mrs. Arroyo’s flitting from one place to another in the company of police, NBI and other law enforcement honchos, plus her stern announcements about speedy and impartial justice and her saber rattling, are meant to send the message that her pledge to build a strong republic was not just hot air, but a serious, no-nonsense vow focused on eradicating crime and criminals, in the category of which she includes the New People’s Army, the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the National Democratic Front.

Almost on cue—as if a master conductor were waving a baton—United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, a recent visitor to the Philippines, announced the inclusion of the NPA in the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This meant, among other things, that whatever funds the NPA might have in the US and its allied countries could now be frozen, and US citizens who assist it arrested.

Apparently Powell and Arroyo talked about matters other than tuna during his visit, despite efforts by the Philippine government to be coy about its involvement in convincing Powell to put the NPA in the FTO list.

Press Secretary Ignascio Bunye hemmed and hawed when asked to react to the NPA’s inclusion in the list. He professed confusion because, he said, the CPP, which has political command over the NPA, is not an outlawed organization, and therefore cannot be described as “criminal”. On the other hand, he said, it couldn’t be described as “revolutionary” because no revolution is actually taking place.

Bunye would probably not recognize a revolution if it sat next to him during a Cabinet meeting, but never mind. His performance was apparently so much song and dance, and meant to soften his boss’ belligerence as well as to mislead people into believing that the Arroyo government had nothing to do with putting the NPA in the US FTO list.

That seemed partly to be in reaction to protests even from administration parties, some sectors of the opposition, as well as civil society groups over the total war approach. It was also meant to explain away the administration’s announced intention to continue peace negotiations with the CPP-NDF—which it can’t do if the latter were indeed terrorists.

These and the other consequences of Mrs. Arroyo’s cultivation of a get-tough-with-all-of-them, show-them-no-mercy image—among which the Acsa Ramirez disaster is far from a minor issue—do suggest a president who’s busy as bee. But they also suggest a buzz that’s mostly directionless, unthought out, and worst of all, increasingly turning into its own parody.

Mrs. Arroyo is in danger of being laughed out of office, if not soon, at least in 2004 at the earliest, because she is turning into a lesser Joseph Estrada, whose numerous gaffs, policy errors and plain cluelessness about what’s going on earned him the boot in 2001.

Despite a rumored IQ above Estrada’s, his predecessor, for example, seems as clueless and as cavalier with the law, particularly the Bill of Rights, as he was. Although it’s more probable that she’s being primarily cavalier with it, Mrs. Arroyo has nevertheless displayed even less respect for the rights of accused people to the presumption of innocence as well as a fair trial as Estrada once did.

This isn’t surprising. Mrs. Arroyo is cultivating an Estrada look alike persona, except that it becomes Estrada more than it does her, among other reasons because she goes too far, and ends up being a parody of her predecessor. Estrada was also partial to the presentation of “criminals” to the media, but chose the crime, for example. Mrs. Arroyo of course also chooses the crime as well as the criminals—but most of them appear to be the poor, with a few lower middle class people thrown in. Some of her choices have thus been only short of disastrous.

On the other hand, how well thought out was Mrs. Arroyo’s total war rhetoric and policy shift on the NPA? The answer is evident in the different messages her own government is sending, as well as in the reactions her get-tough talk has been provoking.

While she’s been all belligerent, for example, her negotiators with the NDF have continued to assure the public that peace talks will continue. While the military is all gunpowder and bayonet, on the one hand, several administration senators have questioned the wisdom of a policy already proven wrong during the martial law period. Bunye may appear to be perplexed as far the NPA’s terrorist tag is concerned, but Blas Ople isn’t, that worthy having announced in so many words his total agreement with the US decision.

The conclusion is thus inescapable that all this—the presentation of “criminals” to the media, the war rhetoric and the belligerence, and in general the appearance of a president busily at work constructing the strong republic—is meant first, second and last to convince us all to vote for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004.

What’s next? Her Excellency appearing in camouflage fatigues somewhere in Isabela, just as Estrada materialized in Mindanao in that costume in 2000?

First published in TODAY

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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